Thursday, July 16, 2015

2015-07-16: Autonomy Incubator Interns Work Together to Crack Coordinated Flight

Bilal, left, tests his controls for the micro UAV as Javier, right, holds its tethers.

Tethered flights like this are a good way of calibrating controls without having to
chase the UAV all over the flight range.
As anyone following the Autonomy Incubator Twitter account already knows, interns Javier Puig Navarro and Bilal Mehdi are constantly performing new, innovative tests in the AI indoor flight range as they make progress towards reliable coordinated flight. From drone hoedowns to UAV tag, both of them have become as famous for their entertaining flight tests as they have for their unshakeable work ethics. Is it not shocking, then, that they have not yet been profiled on the official Autonomy Incubator blog? We thought it was, so today, we're bringing you all the details about everyone's favorite foreign nationals.

The main thrust of Javier and Bilal's research in the AI is coordinated flight, or creating algorithms that let multiple UAVs fly together and communicate to achieve a common mission.

"We do three things: coordination, path following, and trajectory generation," said Javier. "Those are all the ingredients you need for coordinated flight."

"You need to plan what you need to do, then make sure the vehicles follow that plan," Bilal added.

So far, the demo they've used to illustrate the capabilities of coordinated flight is a four-drone mission, where all the vehicles take off, spiral up to a predetermined altitude, then switch formations so that one UAV hovers as the other three orbit around it. This demo, they explain, is a small-scale example of a real atmospheric science data-gathering mission that could be run in the future.  They first rolled it out in our presentation for Deputy Administrator Dava Newman, and have since modified it to include intern Meghan Chandarana's gesture recognition work, like in our presentation for Newport News mayor Mckinley Price.

Remember, this is all autonomous! Incredible, right?

This year is Javier and Bilal's second internship doing coordinated flight research at NASA, but both agree that this summer has brought the most success.

"Last year we started [coordinated flight research], but we never got to fly multiple vehicles," Javier said.

"We had a lot of communication problems last year, but [the AI] has solved them," added Bilal.

One of the secrets to their success is how well they work together, a synergy imported from the lab they share at University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne (UIUC).  Bilal is in his third year of his Mechanical Engineering PhD, while Javier is in his second year of his Aerospace Engineering PhD. Both of them work in the multidisciplinary Advanced Controls Research Lab headed by mathematician Dr. Naira Hovakimyan.  Because of Dr. Hovakimyan's expertise in math, the students in her lab must provide mathematical proof that their algorithms work every time, in all conditions—a rigorous process which guarantees robustness.  According to Bilal, such a level of scrutiny is crucial for implementing autonomous UAVs in real-world situations, especially in his specialty of coordinated collision avoidance.

"If we can guarantee collision avoidance, then we can start having real applications, even high risk ones," he said.  He has a good point— if UAVs are going to be a part of search-and-rescue someday, then they need to perform well every single time they go out. The sooner these algorithms become robust, the sooner UAVs can start helping save human lives.  

Other applications Javier and Bilal anticipate for coordinated autonomous UAVs include scientific missions (like the atmospheric sample collecting in their demo) and Javier's specialty, air traffic control.  Even though both flight technology and air traffic volume have grown massively over the past decades, we still coordinate takeoff and landing for commercial jets the same way that we did in the Reagan administration: with human air traffic controllers giving verbal commands to human pilots. For his Master's thesis, Javier proposed using time coordination to automate the entire landing process for all airplanes coming into a certain airport, from queueing to the individual landings. 

As if being brilliant wasn't enough, both Bilal and Javier are just delightful people. Before he got into aerospace, Javier sailed competitively in his hometown of Valencia, Spain from when he was six years old until he left for the United States at twenty-three. If you ask, he'll drop whatever he's doing to tell you about the regattas he's raced in, or how the freshest fish he ever ate was the tuna he caught in the Mediterranean.  Meanwhile, Bilal has an undergraduate degree in mechatronic engineering—a sci-fi sounding combination of mechanical and electrical—and often swaps lunches with Carol, the Autonomy Incubator administrative assistant. He brings her chicken biriyani; she brings him cheese manicotti.

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